In the Key of Sea

Douglas Morton composes to the rhythms of an aquarium's inhabitants.

By Lee Zimmerman



June 14, 2017

It would be tempting to say there's something fairly fishy about Douglas Morton's music. Or that his music goes over swimmingly with audiences. Then again, who would take that bait?

OK, enough with the puns. Still, it's hard to resist when it comes to describing Morton's muse. An accomplished musician, composer and sound designer, he's now turned his attention to making music intended for aquariums, taking his cue from the movements of their watery inhabitants and other creatures of the deep.

A self-taught keyboard wiz, Morton began making music seemingly spontaneously as a child, hanging out in a local music store and dabbling on whatever instruments he could get his tiny hands on. Later, after resettling in Northern California, he became infatuated with digital sampling and music technology, helping usher in an advanced wave of computer-driven audio software that could be put to practical use.

His efforts began with creating percussive samples for early drum machines, and then continued with the development of sounds for digital samplers and sampling hardware. In time, his efforts began attracting the attention of a high-profile musical clientele—Pink Floyd, U2, Prince, the Cure, Depeche Mode, Tangerine Dream and Peter Gabriel among them. "Christopher Franke from Tangerine Dream was my first customer," Morton says in a phone interview, sharing his delight in meeting artists he admired. "I was already a fan of many of the bands that were now using my sounds. Sampling technology led me to artists that I never would have had heard of, as well."

It wasn't long before Morton's compositions and virtual instrument design began to show up on albums, television shows and feature films. Then, in the early '90s, Morton found another source of inspiration during a scuba diving expedition off the coast of Southern California. Working with staff members from the Monterey Bay Aquarium with whom he had gone diving, he began creating soundtracks to accompany the aquarium's various events and exhibitions.

That pursuit eventually led him to Draper's Loveland Living Planet Aquarium, which invited him to create music that could be played in sync with the movement of their sea creatures. It introduced an auditory element that could ultimately enhance their visual displays and create a fuller sensory experience for guests.

"It's very similar to scoring [music for] dancers," Morton says. "The ocean is full of interesting timbres, dynamics and colors. ... There's an entire orchestra under the surface. A school of fish is a section of flutes, a pinnacle is a low bass, the current is the tempo." He calls the result "a truly revelatory experience."

It's that sort of spectacle that Morton intends to share when he performs at the Living Planet Aquarium. The event includes Morton playing live in front of the Ocean Explorer Shark exhibit and the jellyfish one, in the first of three performances scheduled at the aquarium this summer. The program includes several of his earlier marine-inspired scores, as well as the composition of new soundtracks—accompanied by guitarist Terence Hansen and multi-instrumentalist Leraine Horstmanshoff. In addition to giving the audience opportunities to interact and ask questions during the performance, the music will be recorded throughout the day and posted on Soundcloud, allowing guests to listen to the final results and then leave their comments.

Although his music has become part of the programming at the aquarium, Morton says he's looking forward to performing it there live for the first time. Initially, he thought of doing a traditional concert, but later came up with the idea of doing a day-long, interactive event that allows him to compose spontaneously while drawing inspiration from the movements of the aquarium's creatures. "It's very inspiring musically," Morton says. "We're so accustomed to experiencing the final results of films, concerts and exhibits that I thought it would be cool to show how it's done live."

Morton credits what he calls "a terrific team of creatives" with helping bring the idea to fruition. He singles out artist Billy Hensler for the massive murals throughout the aquarium and Aryeh Robinson for designing the exhibits, while citing the aquarium's staff members for creating an extraordinary immersive experience. He hopes the new music eventually works its way into soundtracks for various exhibits.

Morton says he's especially excited to see the audience's reaction. "Hopefully, they'll leave inspired and enriched," he says. "I hope to offer the notion that you can convert what you see into musical ideas and sonic images."

Douglas Morton at the Loveland Living Planet Aquarium

12033 Lone Peak Parkway, Draper


Saturday, June 17

10 a.m.-6 p.m.

$14.95-$19.95, children 2 and under free




Chloe Johnson interviews Douglas on a morning tour of the Loveland Living Planet Aquarium before the Penguin Research Station performance.


Douglas’s live performance at Sea Melodies 2017.

Symphony in 'Sea'-Major: Inside the mind of an aquarium composer

By Lottie Peterson Johnson / Deseret News / Provo, Utah

Published: June 8, 2017 12:05 p.m.

Provided by Living Planet Aquarium

Aquarium composer Douglas Morton will be performing and creating new compositions in front of the shark exhibit at the Living Planet Aquarium on Saturday, June 17.

Most people see fish when they’re underwater. Douglas Morton saw music.

He’d made a habit out of scuba diving near his home in Santa Cruz, California, but on one particular dive, the ocean swirled around him and transformed into a symphony.

“I noticed the different elements under the surface of the ocean were all very musical, and I realized that I could assign different things that I was seeing as I was diving to musical instruments and melodies,” he said. “I saw a school of fish as a section of flutes. The current became a rhythm. The pinnacles of the mountains coming up from the bottom were like bass tones.”

Soon after, Morton, a pioneer in sound design who now resides in Park City, began to draw musical inspiration from the sea. Since that dive more than 20 years ago, the composer has created ocean-inspired music for Monterey Bay Aquarium in California and the Loveland Living Planet Aquarium in Draper. Morton will be performing and creating new compositions in front of the shark exhibit at the Living Planet Aquarium on Saturday, June 17.

Morton draws a connection between music and the underwater world by observing animal movements. One of his earliest compositions that was featured in an exhibit at Monterey Bay Aquarium, titled “Jellies: Living Art,” involved timing the pulses of jellies moving through the water — a rhythm that later set the tempo for his music.

“Jellies are just beautiful to look at,” he said. “It’s like watching ballet. They’re really fun to compose to. It’s very similar to scoring dancers or scoring a movie,” he said. “The fish are the characters in the movie I’m scoring.”

And while his music generally produces a calm, atmospheric tone, certain creatures tend to bring out some wilder melodies.

“A lot of aquariums, you’ll see a variety of fish and we jokingly call some of them the ‘talent fish’ because they’re more fun to look at,” he said. “People love sharks just because there’s such a mysticism behind them — they’re instantly recognizable and they always look a little predatory.”

Morton added that penguins are often more active and energetic, an observation that led to his enthusiastic piece “Penguin Boogie.”

And as much as he enjoys composing aquarium music, Morton said his songs work best when they go unnoticed.

“It can’t be too overstated,” he said. "If you’re paying attention to the music, then we haven’t really done our job well. The music is supposed to support the visuals, and we’re trying to create an immersive experience where you’re in another world for a little while. And this world is filled with color, current, plants and fish. My goal always is to reinforce that immersion. It’s challenging, but it’s really fun.”

Morton hopes he can bring the ocean even more to life for those exploring the aquarium in Draper on June 17. Throughout the day he will be performing and composing on his keyboards and bringing in some guest musicians for collaboration. And while he hopes to come away with some new music for the aquarium, above all he hopes his performance is interactive and engaging.

Morton’s performance on June 17 is one of three events he has scheduled at the aquarium this summer. The other performances will take place on July 15 and Aug. 12.

“This is for the guests (and) for the kids,” he said. “There’s people who have never experienced any ocean life, and children who have never been to the beach. (The aquarium) is a wonderful offering to the community of Salt Lake to bring the ocean to people, and it’s been really incredible to be a part of.”

If you go...

What: Douglas Morton

When: Saturday, June 17, 10 a.m.-6 p.m.; Saturday, July 15; Saturday, Aug. 12

Where: Loveland Living Aquarium, 12033 Lone Peak Parkway, Draper

How much: Adults, $19.95; teens, military, students and seniors, $16.95; children, $14.95; free for children 2 and under